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East Meets West: A Cup of Tea

Scientists say that tea can be part of a healthy lifestyle, so a little historical context and knowledge of tea may be in order.

The origins of tea are steeped in legend and date back over 5,000 years to ancient China. One tale tells of the great monk Boddhidarma, who once fell asleep while meditating. To resolve this problem, he sliced off his eyelids and cast them to the ground. It was from this place on the ground that the tea tree was born, and from its leaves came a drink to conquer sleep.

According to another myth, the discovery of tea was by accident. In 2737 B.C. the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was in the forest boiling drinking water. A wayward leaf was said to have drifted through the air and landed in the boiling pot. A brown liquid infused into the water. With curiosity, he drank the liquid and found it refreshing.

Although myth, the tales above hold some truth. For instance, the history of tea does begin in ancient China, probably somewhere near the Vietnamese border. Around 800 A.D., a man named Lu Yu wrote the Ch’a Ching, the first true book on tea. Because of his lifelong observations and expertise on the subject of tea cultivation, he was later patronized by the emperor and considered a near-saint.
The Buddhist monk Yeisei, later known as the "Father of Tea," brought the leaf to Japan. Over time, drinking tea evolved into an art form known as the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This tea culture spread from monasteries and the imperial society to the rest of secular Japan.

In 1560 the Portuguese Father De Cruz first encountered tea. It is said that tea made its way to Europe during the era of Elizabeth I and Rembrandt. The Marquise de Seven first mentioned that milk be added to tea in 1680.

In 1650 Peter Stuyvesant introduced tea to New Amsterdam, later recognized as New York. Before long the city was drinking more tea than all of London. To this day, although popular in North America and Europe, these two continents are the only ones in which tea is not abundantly grown.

Tea Types

All tea comes from the evergreen tea tree, Camellia sinensis. Many other drinks that are considered teas are actually herbal infusions, named after the plants they come from.

There are five types of tea: white, green, oolong, black and pu-erhs. The differences between them lie mainly in the ways in which they are processed. For example, white tea is minimally processed and is usually picked and air-dried; green tea is picked and heated by steaming or pan firing. In contrast to oolong and black teas, green tea is not oxidized. Pu-erhs is aged and post-fermented and gets its name from the town Pu-erh in Southwest China.
Even among green teas there is much variation. Some green teas from Japan often have a seaweed-like flavor, while others have grassy notes. Other teas, like Lapsong Suchong (a black tea), are smoked, giving an altogether new character to the beverage. Sometimes green teas are mixed with roasted rice or barley for a unique flavor, as well as being a digestive aid.

Experience and Preparation

The experience of tea drinking is delicate and comparable to that of enjoying a glass of fine wine. It is a sort of art and culture based on various factors: from the tea-ware to the quality of leaf used, from the brewing method to the length of time each cup is steeped. In addition, the whole atmosphere really matters. To maximize the taste in each cup, there are a few brewing guidelines to follow. First, it is recommended to begin with cool, filtered water. With black and oolong teas, bring the water to a slow, rolling boil and then pour it over the leaves. Because white and green teas easily burn and turn bitter, use water just under the boiling point. Steep to the desired taste. Usually green tea is only steeped for up to three minutes, while the others can be steeped up to five or eight minutes.

Tea and Health

The Executive Director of the Tea Council, Mr. Bill Gorman says that there is a huge body of scientific evidence showing that tea can make a significant contribution to a healthy lifestyle. Of teas, three main substances — antioxidants, nutrients and caffeine — antioxidants are often first looked at when considering health benefits. Antioxidants, mainly consisting of polyphones and falconoid, inhibit substances called free radicals in their ability to damage the molecules in our bodies. Major nutrients in tea included carotene, vitamins B1, B2, B6, C, as well as the minerals potassium and fluoride.

Studies show tea aids in enhancing immune functions, lowering high blood pressure, reducing the risk of strokes, heart attacks and various forms of cancer, aiding in digestion, boosting connectivity, and preventing dental cavities as well as certain forms of plaque and gingivitis.